Painted in 1991, Kerry James Marshall’s Nat-Shango (Thunder) is a pivotal early example of the powerful and poignant paintings that have propelled the artist to become one of the most important and insightful chroniclers in contemporary art. Depicting the story of Nat Turner, a Virginia preacher who led a rebellion of his fellow enslaved people in 1831, with this work Marshall confronts a challenging moment in American history with dexterity and intelligence. Best known for confronting head on the lack of the Black narrative in the art historical canon, his richly configured paintings weave together multiple layers of the lived Black experience, referencing figures from African culture, the lives of enslaved Africans, the later civil rights movement, and the contemporary Black diaspora. During his more than forty-year career as both an artist and a teacher, Marshall has influenced generations of young artists, and—arguably—has been responsible for the emergence of Black figurative painting as the dominant artistic movement of the new century.
In Nat-Shango (Thunder), the life-sized figure of a man is positioned front and center, brandishing an axe in his right hand, and pointing with the axe in his left hand to the distant farmhouse. He has the stance of a man who is on the brink of his own destiny, and who is about to embark on a course of action—that while not knowing the exact outcome—does know that it will change history. Dressed in a pale shirt and a pair of tattered pants, he is located barefoot next to the remains of a once mighty tree, its stump perhaps a metaphor for entire generations of enslaved people not reaching their potential. Scattered throughout the composition are a collaged assembly of enigmatic heads, a series of portraits of young white women taken from the covers of the popular Harlequin novels that were consumed in their millions for their tales of young women in search of true love in the arms of a tall dark stranger; in such close proximity to the figure of Nat Turner, these two motifs confront issues regarding beauty, race and sexuality.
The whole scene is bathed in a rich twilight (provided by the solar eclipse that Turner thought was a sign from God to begin his rebellion, and shown over his left arm), saturating both the deep blue sky and lush green fields with an eerie luminosity; this dawning light on the horizon a symbolic indication of the new day, and the change that it will herald. This verdant setting, complete with its pristine white farmhouse surrounded by picket fencing, strangely at odds with the lived experience of many of the enslaved people forced to work the land.
As much as Marshall lavishes attention on commentary about relations among the races and aspects of African-American culture, he has an equal intensity about his technique.”
This painting is Marshall’s re-telling of the story of Nat Turner, an enslaved man who was hanged in 1831 for leading an insurrection that resulted in the deaths of approximately 60 white people. The ensuing retaliation by the local militia and other groups killed at least 100 enslaved people and free Blacks, before local laws were passed outlawing the practice. Turner believed he had been divinely chosen to lead his congregation out of bondage, but “Turner’s Rebellion,” as it became known, led to increased restrictions for the Black population. Nonetheless, Turner was regarded as a martyred hero by many, and an inspiration to generations of others who followed. However, unlike most traditional history paintings, Marshall’s is not simply a retelling—albeit, a heavily nuanced one—of the past. By imbuing the painting with multiple layers of history it reflects the complex nature of the debate surrounding race, one which still resonates as much today as it did in the nineteenth century, and perhaps even more so.
By giving this work the title Nat-Shango (Thunder), Marshall includes another important component of the Black experience, that of the shared African heritage. The title is a reference to the Orisha of Thunder, Fire, and Storms, an important figure in the Yoruba pantheon of Orisha spirits. As well as being associated with drums, masculinity, war, wealth and strength, Shango was also a mortal warlord king of the Oyo Empire, before dying and transcending into the heavens to become a orisha. Yoruba religious beliefs were part of the complex litany of songs, histories, stories, and other cultural engagements that traveled with the enslaved peoples of west Africa on their journey to the New World and, for many remained an important, if concealed, part of their personal everyday culture.
Throughout his career, Kerry James Marshall has sought to redress the lack of visibility of the Black figure in the art historical canon. One of his earliest paintings to receive critical acclaim was Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980), his first to feature a Black figure and a dramatic departure from his previous work with collage. It was created primarily in shades of black and depicts the bust of a man with a large white smile and gapped teeth; the work is now in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art (LACMA). Although working with this theme for the past forty years, his championing of the Black figure remains especially pertinent today. Many of the current generation of critically acclaimed artists who are contributing to the contemporary debate about race and identity, are only doing so because of Marshall’s earlier inquiries; Jordan Casteel’s depiction of the chromatic richness of Black skin, to take just one example, can be seen to be in direct dialogue with Marshall’s monochromatic renderings. It is Marshall’s lived experience, and that of his forebears, that has shaped his worldview, and which led him to produce work that reflects the social and political reality of Black America. "You can't be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and not feel like you've got some kind of social responsibility" Marshall has explained, "You can't move to Watts [in Los Angeles] in 1963 and grow up in South Central near the Black Panthers' headquarters and see the kinds of things I saw in my developmental years and not speak about it" (K. J. Marshall and D. Smith in Conversation, quoted in Along The Way, Kerry James Marshall, exh. cat., London, 2005, p. 17). It is with paintings such as Nat-Shango (Thunder) that Marshall has not only played his own important role in recontextualizing the debate surrounding race, but has also enabled a new, younger, and perhaps more vociferous, generation to make their own voices heard in shaping the present critical inflection point in American history.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).